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|DETROIT -- A syndicated political cartoon depicted U.S. power in Iraq with the tag line: "That thing gotta Hemi?" |
A crossword puzzle in The New York Times included a four-letter word that means "powerful car engine, informally."
Clothing bearing the Hemi name is selling in Beverly Hills, Calif.
In recent years automakers have had little success branding their engines with catchy names. Until the Hemi. Thanks to the Chrysler group's canny marketing, the Hemi -- a traditional push-rod V-8 with two valves per cylinder -- is turning up in unexpected places in American culture and selling well in showrooms.
"Wherever you go or whoever you ask, everybody knows Hemi, even the kids," says Chrysler group COO Wolfgang Bernhard. "It is one of the strongest things we have going for us right now."
Chrysler will expand its Hemi vehicle lineup, says Joe Eberhardt, Chrysler group executive vice president of global sales and marketing. "Whenever we have a performance vehicle it will be a Hemi. We will use it in the Chrysler brand, Jeep and Dodge."
It is a remarkable rebirth for the Hemi, the nickname for a V-8 with a hemispherically shaped top of the combustion chamber. The Chrysler engine gained fame in stock car and drag races in the 1960s, driven by such legends as Don "Big Daddy" Garlits.
Chrysler is building the reborn 345-hp, 5.7-liter Hemi on two shifts at its engine plant in Saltillo, Mexico, and "can easily go to three shifts," Bernhard says, although no decision has been made to do so.
The Hemi engine helped propel the Dodge Ram to record sales in calendar 2003 - up 13.2 percent to 449,371 units, compared with 396,934 units a year earlier. Last October, advertising for the Hemi in the redesigned 2004 Dodge Durango created stronger than expected demand for the SUV, says Eric Ridenour, Chrysler group executive vice president of product development.
Only 9 percent of buyers opted for the 5.9-liter V-8 in the old Durango. About half of 2004 Durangos are sold with the Hemi V-8.
Customers must pay $895 more to jump from a Durango equipped with a 4.7-liter V-8 to a similarly equipped Durango with a Hemi.
The Hemi also will be sold in the 2005 Dodge Magnum wagon, the 2005 Chrysler 300C sedan and the redesigned 2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Chrysler credits the Hemi's success in part to an efficient, powerful engine and to a humorous advertising campaign with a tag line that unexpectedly struck a cross-generational chord.
"That thing got a Hemi?" was first heard in October 2002 in advertising that introduced the Hemi-equipped Dodge Ram heavy-duty pickup. The line was reprised in January 2003 with the introduction of the light-duty Ram.
"Our feeling was that Hemi would resonate with baby boomers who remembered the Hemi products," says Julie Roehm, Chrysler group director of marketing communications. "We didn't expect that we would find that young men under 25 had a strong, positive opinion about it, whether through vintage vehicles or hearing about it from automotive lore.
"It's definitely exceeded all our expectations in terms of market response," Roehm says.
The Hemi name has become synonymous with performance and is inextricably linked to Chrysler, says Jim Wangers, senior analyst with Automotive Marketing Consultants Inc., in Vista, Calif. "They have merchandised it particularly well by not being supertechnical," Wangers says. "They are just calling it a Hemi. That is enough because it does have a positive overall performance image."
Ironically, consumers arrive in showrooms looking for a Hemi without always knowing what a Hemi engine is. "Hemi refers to the shape of the combustion chamber, and in the '60s it was something that separated Dodge products from everybody else," says Dutch Mandel, editor of AutoWeek, a sister publication to Automotive News. "Hemi became synonymous with street performance. People remember it."
The Hemi name is derived from the hemispherical shape of the top of the combustion chamber. The design creates room for extra-large valves, which allow more air to flow through the engine to boost power.
Roehm says, "People who are enthusiasts definitely know what it is. They know Hemi is equated to powerful, fast engines."
That's good enough to bring people into showrooms, dealers say.
Carter Doolittle, an owner of Gary Miller Dodge in Erie, Pa., says, "They don't really know what it is. They always ask what makes a Hemi a Hemi."
Mike Morgan, a salesman at Keystone Dodge in Allentown, Pa., says that in the last year as many as six customers have traded low-mileage, 1-year-old vehicles for a Ram or Durango equipped with a Hemi.
"They take about a $7,000 to $8,000 hit" in depreciation, Morgan says. "But they will trade a 2003 for a 2004 to get a Hemi."
Chrysler did not set out to market the Hemi. When company engineers began redesigning a V-8 in 1998, they weren't even considering a Hemi combustion chamber. But the engineers settled on a Hemi application to gain fuel-efficient power.
"We decided this design gave us all the benefits we wanted," Ridenour says. "The Hemi name came late in the program."
Chrysler's engine is a hit even though purists do not believe the new incarnation is a true Hemi.
"This new version is not as pure a Hemi as the old version, which was an engine for aggressive racing performance rather than for passenger-car use," analyst Wangers says. "They have made compromises in it to make it more user-friendly in normal street use."
When the reborn Hemi arrived in 2002 some purists dubbed the engine a "semihemi" because the combustion chambers are not perfectly hemispherical: Each chamber is slightly filled with metal on the sides opposite the twin spark plugs.
Chrysler vigorously defends the Hemi label. Bob Lee, Chrysler group vice president of powertrain product engineering, says the engine meets two tests of a Hemi: the top of the combustion chamber is hemispherical; and valves are arranged opposing each other, rather than side by side.
Dealer Doolittle is a believer. Driving up to a restaurant in his Hemi Durango recently, two kids caught his attention. They were yelling: "That thing got a Hemi?"
|So what if he only gets 12 miles per gallon around town? |
Tom Moyer’s decision to buy a 2004 Dodge Ram pickup, powered by a new V-8 “Hemi” engine, had nothing to do with fuel economy. It was all about that intoxicating feeling when he mashed down the accelerator.
“You get that push-back in the seat, that G-force thing,” Moyer, 42, said of his new truck. “I could be doing 90 and not even realize it.”
When DaimlerChrysler revived its classic Hemi engine two years ago, company leaders knew the 345-horsepower beast would do well with Dodge loyalists like Moyer, who is on his fourth Ram truck, and baby boomers who remembered the Hemi from its former life as the power plant for Chrysler muscle cars in the 1960s. The big surprise is how well everyone else has responded to it.
There is no question the Hemi is helping sell some trucks. U.S. sales of Dodge Ram pickups rose 13 percent in 2003 to hit an all-time record of nearly 450,000 units, with more than half the buyers opting for the Hemi. Dodge’s new Durango sport utility vehicle, launched in November as a 2004 model, also is off to a fast start, thanks in part to the hype surrounding Hemi.
Durango sales rose 25 percent in December and 43 percent in January, according to Autodata Corp. Fifty-five percent of new Durango buyers chose the Hemi.
Beyond sales, the Hemi has become something of a cultural phenomenon in its second life.
Made popular by TV ads built around the catch phrase, “That Thang Got a Hemi?,” the brawny engine with the in-your-face attitude is taking its place in the American mainstream alongside McDonald’s hamburgers and Levi’s jeans.
Chrysler seems eager to get plenty more mileage out of the Hemi.
Three new Chrysler vehicles — the all-new Chrysler 300C sedan, Dodge Magnum wagon and redesigned Jeep Grand Cherokee — are about to debut with Hemi options, and more could be on the way, Chrysler officials said.
But how much more juice can Chrysler squeeze from Hemi?
“I think you’ll see more of it as time moves on,” said Eric Ridenour, executive vice president of engineering for Auburn Hills-based Chrysler, a unit of DaimlerChrysler AG. “It already has proven to be a good fit in heavy-duty pickups and will soon power premium passenger cars. You can envision the range in between as a fertile ground for lots of applications.”
Hemi option in cars
But first things first.
This month and next, with the launches of the 300 sedan and Magnum wagon, Chrysler will see if consumers want a Hemi in vehicles other than big Dodge trucks. The V-8 Hemi will be an option on top-of-the-line models of the 300 and Magnum.
Unlike the Hemi in Dodge trucks, the passenger car Hemi will have a multidisplacement system, which automatically switches between eight cylinders and four — fewer in the city, more on the freeway — to conserve fuel.
That’s one of the features that sold Joseph Miller on the new 300C, the Hemi-powered flagship of the sedan series, which he expects to be delivered next month.
Miller, a resident of Grand Forks, N.D., said he fondly remembers the get-up-and-go of the Hemi in the 1954 Chrysler New Yorker he owned as a teen-ager. “Believe me, I’m not a drag racer now,” Miller, 54, said. “My needs have changed, of course. But the allure of having a Hemi was just in my blood.”
Customers like Miller should give an early boost to sales of Hemi-equipped 300 and Magnum models, said Joe Eberhardt, Chrysler’s executive vice president of marketing. “I could see initial interest being in the same range (as the 50-plus percent seen on the Dodge truck side),” he said.
He predicts Hemi sales in the 300 and Magnum will flatten out to near 30 percent over time.
Hemi debuted in 1951
Chrysler first introduced the Hemi in 1951, dropping it in its Saratoga, New Yorker and Imperial sedans. The engine was redesigned in 1952 and again in 1953. Its name comes from its hemisphere-shaped combustion chamber, which Chrysler says creates more horsepower and is more fuel efficient than traditional wedge-shaped V-8s.
“Then we were out of the Hemi business until 1964,” said Bob Lee, director of Chrysler’s powertrain division. When it came back, the Hemi landed in Chrysler and Plymouth muscle cars, such as the Barracuda, and defined itself as the king of the streets. Around the same time, Chrysler also was using Hemi to power vehicles on the NASCAR racing circuit. But the ride was short-lived.
In 1971, Chrysler again halted production of the super-engine. The last mass-volume Chrysler vehicle that carried a Hemi engine was the 1971 Charger.
The legacy lived on, though.
“The engines that really resonated with the public had the advantage of being marketed in the muscle-car era, when the U.S. buying public was fascinated with power, speed and the space age, which all intertwined to produce a unique and exploitable marketing aura that may never again be replicated,” said Bill Visnic, editor of Ward’s Engine and Vehicle Technology Update.
Unless you revive a name like “Hemi,” that is, imbued with all that nostalgia.
“We started out, not to reinvent the Hemi,” Ridenour said, “but rather to build a really good engine that was going to be our premium V-8 for a very long time.”
The old Hemi design quickly emerged as a front-runner, but updates were needed.
Lee said that while the new Hemi is less powerful than the old street burners, the fuel economy is 10 percent better and emissions are lower.
Performance sells Hemi
Then came the marketing.
“In my heart of hearts, I knew (Hemi) was going to be something successful for the baby boomers,” said Julie Roehm, director of marketing communications for the Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep brands. “But I did have doubts about whether ... it was going to work with the younger crowd.”
Light-hearted TV ads, featuring two characters wowed by the beefy engine’s performance helped make the case, Roehm said.
The ads also made a minor celebrity of John Reep, the star of the Hemi commercials.
“For me, as an actor, it was like hitting the jackpot,” said Reep, who admits he had never even heard of a Hemi before landing the role. Now, he said, he can scarcely walk down the street without someone craning their neck out a car window, and yelling “That Thang Got a Hemi?”
Next to engines other automakers have tried to market, Hemi stands tall as the best known, Ward’s Visnic said. “(Ford Motor Co.’s) Triton (truck V-8) and Duratec (V-6) have failed to ignite much brand-awareness, and (General Motors Corp.) hasn’t done much better with its Vortec truck engines or Ecotec car engines,” he said. Besides Hemi, “the only modern engine name that’s achieved any kind of brand success is GM’s Northstar V-8.”
Patrick Dessert, director of Oakland University’s Product Development and Manufacturing Center, said Chrysler’s recent success with Hemi is proof that so-called NASCAR Dads — the new masculine counterpart to the Soccer Mom — are becoming a powerful demographic. “It’s all about the vroom, vroom with these guys,” he said.
Char Miller, history professor at San Antonio’s Trinity University, who teaches a course about cars and culture, has another take. “What (Chrysler has done) is sell an image, so it becomes the engine, not what the engine is in. It’s all about how you speak to a certain fantasy of the consumer. That’s what’s driving this.”
If the Hemi hype continues, Chrysler’s Ridenour said the company will be ready to expand production in Saltillo, Mexico, home of the only Hemi plant. “We think we can build enough to meet our projected demand,” he said. “We’re keeping a pulse on that, and if something changes, then we’ll have plans in place to address it.”
Roberto Gutierrez, vice president of Mexican manufacturing operations for Chrysler, said his team is already studying ways to expand Hemi production in Saltillo, which now has the capacity to build 500,000 of the engines a year. “Today’s request is for about 420,000,” he said. Last year, before the 300 and Magnum were added to the lineup, Saltillo built 280,000 Hemi engines.
Gutierrez believes that once the new Jeep Grand Cherokee debuts this fall demand could surge again, to 600,000 units, and a plant expansion may be necessary.
A plant add-on will be just a small sign Chrysler has made a mark with Hemi, historian Miller said.
“The moment they put a Hemi into a minivan, that’s when we’ll know they’ve achieved a truly enormous victory.”
You can reach Brett Clanton at (313) 222-2612 or [email protected]